There is a tradition of late-blooming playwrights. Ibsen didn't write his prose plays until he was a ripe 50. Shaw was another mid-life convert, as was Genet. There is something inspiring in this, especially for those who hope in their hearts to write the great American play--someday.
Add to the list Douglas Mitchell, author of 32 plays and one-acts, all written in the ten years since his sixtieth birthday. He has acquired a devoted regional following. Now the Houston playwright is enjoying a full staging of four of his works, and readings of five more at RedFest 2000, One Arm Red's annual festival of new American playwrights.
Mitchell, a former linguistics professor, is often compared to Pinter and Beckett for his spare, surreal stagings and hollow use of language. There is also more than a hint of Mrozek and Ionesco in his love of platitudes and his anti-authoritarian stance. No wonder that one of his chief standard-bearers today is Edward Albee, who parroted these trademark styles of the post-war absurdists. Albee has been successfully touring Mitchell's work across Europe.
"I am a linguist...in the sense that I have spent most of my life studying and thinking about how language functions." Paradoxically, Mitchell--who could say the same in Sanskrit or Old Icelandic--bestows on his characters a marked lack of language ability. Instead, in his world, language is a way to keep reality out. Bourgeois couples and petty officials spout self-assurances that rationalize dark obscenities. In mounting horror, you can't imagine anyone on stage having a vocabulary of more than a few hundred words--none of which make moral sense.
Mitchell is especially at home in Texan dialect, where his ear for banal idiom is spot-on. A cranky hermit lashes out at wasteful living: "That wife o' his, buyin everything, even paperback books at the grocery store." His dialogue is a storm of self-assertion and self-definition--"We don't like intrusions like that," "I've always been the kind to ask questions," "I take a shower every day. I'm very clean,"--a parade of people in cocoons of their own construction.
Here are the four plays performed at RedFest, in repertory: All Wrapped Up, a tense and ugly scene that surrounds an unexpected delivery; How to Sacrifice a Child, a grim backwoods meditation on stability; It's Got to be Something, where an earnest young couple looks for justice in the matter of a dozen small brown eggs; and Shatter the Golden Vessel, which transposes a prisoner's last rites into the jargon of an IRS audit.
There is a challenge to staging this world. As Nicholas Bataille discovered with Ionesco, the absurd must be played absolutely straight. In general, the productions here succeed, though often at an uncomfortably rapid pace. This may be the American actor's native distrust of material that is wordy, but it distracts from the silence that the characters are frantically avoiding.
The star peformers have an ear for the absurdity of the language yet play it with complete sincerity. These include Martin Shakar as the moronic patriarch in How to Sacrifice a Child, and Bev Sheehan and Shaun Powers in It's Got to be Something. When these plays work, they are extremely playful and grim, and reach the heights of intelligence and inanity. Perhaps if these plays come back next year--a possibility in the works--they will be given the full scope and breathing room that they deserve.
A clear star of this series is Manhattan Theatre Source. Only open since February, they have created a cozy, multi-use space right off of Washington Square. Downstairs in the office there's a meeting place and resource clearinghouse for the Off-Off Broadway community. Upstairs, next to the fifty-seat theater, there's a book exchange, with new plays offered at a discount, and inexpensive, used copies of all of those books you like to pretend you've read. And who knows? The plays of Douglass Mitchell may soon be among them.